In his speech at Badaun, Rahul Gandhi claimed virtual omnipotence for the Nehru-Gandhi family and declared: 'I belong to [a] family which has... never gone back on its words... You know that when my family decides to do anything, it does it -- be it the freedom struggle, the division of Pakistan, or taking India to the 21st century.'
The Pakistan Foreign Office has rather peevishly responded to this by saying that it only confirms that 'India has always been trying to interfere in Pakistan's internal affairs and to destabilise Pakistan.'<+/P>
It's easy enough to dismiss this. Pakistan's break-up happened largely because of internal reasons, in particular, the failure of the West Pakistan elite to accommodate the aspirations of the East Bengali people, and the Pakistan army's genocidal military operations, unleashed after the people's representatives won a democratic election. India merely catalysed or played midwife to Bangladesh's birth.
However, the domestic impact of Rahul's statement will be greater. Whether it boosts the morale of Congress workers or not is an open question. (That seems unlikely.) But it will certainly give the party's opponents a stick to beat it with. The claim that one family is all-powerful or is destined to lead India, and that the Babri mosque wouldn't have been razed had a Gandhi been in power, is bound to be viewed as incompatible with the ethos of democracy.
The claim also sits ill with the Congress's record since the early 1980s -- of making compromises with communalists of different varieties -- in particular, its 'soft-Hindutva' line, which led to the opening of the gates of the Babri mosque complex in the first place.
Evidently, Rahul Gandhi has not matured enough to sense the public pulse and pitch his speeches right during his election canvassing in UP, despite his success in attracting crowds. Or else, he wouldn't have repeatedly said that the Congress alone has stood for development since the days of Nehru; that it knows no caste, no religion: 'I'm a Hindustani and for me every Indian is a Hindustani. Development, not caste, is my concern.'
Rahul Gandhi should know that in UP, caste has a double meaning. It connotes -- as it always did -- a hierarchical and deeply iniquitous organisation of society. But it is also an instrument of self-assertion of various subaltern, underprivileged and low castes, especially, the Dalits and Other Backward Classes, OBCs.
The second, emancipatory, meaning -- implying radical social change -- is far more important than the first. So the Jatav or Balmiki Dalit, the Kevat or Bhisti MBC (Most Backward Classes), or the Nai or Lohar OBC is happy pursuing a caste-driven agenda and quite unashamed of it.
Even the upper castes have half-reconciled themselves to the unstoppable Forward March of the Backwards. That's why a staunchly Dalit party like the Bahujan Samaj Party is successfully wooing Brahmins and other upper castes. The BSP's past goes back to the Tilak, Tarozoo aur Talwar slogan -- directed against Brahmins, Banias and Rajputs respectively. Today, it has fielded a total of 139 upper caste candidates, including 86 Brahmins, 14 Banias and 38 Rajputs, besides 110 OBCs, 61 Muslims and only 93 Dalits.
The BSP's meteoric rise in UP -- from a mere 9.4 per cent vote-share and 12 assembly seats in 1991 to a 23.1 percent vote and 98 seats in 2002, and a forecast total of 145 to 155 seats according to some opinion polls now -- is part of a larger phenomenon.
This is the rise of subaltern or previously marginalised groups like Yadav, Jats and Gujjars to electoral dominance in UP, through their search for direct political representation for themselves, rather than through established parties based on a broad multi-caste coalition.
Now, even smaller OBC groups like the Kurmis want to break out of the Yadav-dominated Samajwadi Party and form their own organisation, as Beni Prasad Verma has done. This is leading to political fragmentation, but also to greater representation of the underclasses.
The process, driven by identity politics, and the aspiration of the weak to be recognised as independent political agents, has involved a steady erosion of the base of the Congress, and more recently, of the Bharatiya Janata Party. The process began in 1984. By 2002, a huge, decisive change had taken place. The Congress's vote-share in UP in 1984 was 51 per cent. It fell to a mere 9 per cent in 2002.
The BJP was the principal early beneficiary of the Congress's decline -- not least because of its aggressive mobilisation around the sectarian Ayodhya temple issue. By 1993, immediately after the Babri demolition, the BJP emerged as UP's single largest party, with 33.3 percent of the total vote. The Samajwadi Party and the BSP trailed it with vote-shares of 21.8 and 19.6 per cent. But this was not to last.
Soon, both these subaltern-group parties overtook the BJP. By 2002, the SP and the BSP together commanded an impressive 48 per cent of UP's total vote and 60 per cent of its Assembly seats.
The two were -- and remain -- bitter rivals. But their collective overtaking of the Congress-BJP should not be underrated. By the 2004 Lok Sabha election, the SP and the BSP's combined vote-share had risen to 60 per cent. They control 57 of the state's 80 Lok Sabha seats. They are now raiding the base -- not just of the Congress, but that of the BJP too.
The 2004 election saw serious competition emerge for upper-caste votes between the SP and BSP, on the one hand, and a retreating BJP, on the other. The BJP's UP Lok Sabha tally fell from 57 (of 85 seats) to just 10 seats (of 80). The competition has since become more fierce. An NDTV exit poll after the first phase of the 7-phase elections forecasts a serious decline of the upper castes' preference for the BJP, from 72 per cent to just 50 percent.Behind these figures lies a major political shift. This is the transformation of the terms of electoral competition, driven above all, by the BSP. That party is now trying to co-opt the upper castes, especially Brahmins, within its Dalit-dominated politics, on its own terms. This is an electoral-political phenomenon without precedent in India.
This is the exact opposite of what the Congress did in its heyday in UP, when it built an upper caste-dominated social coalition, which incorporated the 'core minorities' -- Dalits and Muslims. It's also the reverse of what the BJP did in the 1990s by recruiting significant OBC support -- through a combination of mandal (OBC identity politics) and kamandal (upper caste-oriented Hindutva).
Now, for the first time, a Dalit force is growing to a point where it can lay down the UP agenda, to which its traditional enemies must supplicate. This is a major achievement in itself. Going by countless reports, UP's Brahmins are deserting the BJP and gravitating towards the BSP. According to most opinion polls, the BSP is set to emerge as UP's largest party. This can happen only if it wins a vote-share significantly in excess of the proportion of Dalits in UP's population (21 per cent). Dalit power could present serious competition to OBC power -- for the first time ever in a major state.
Whatever happens in the UP elections, it is clear that the real contest is between the BSP and the SP. The BJP and the Congress are peripheral to it. The BJP will probably be reduced to an upper-caste party with a sprinkling of OBC support such as the Lodhi Rajputs (Kalyan Singh's caste).
The Congress doesn't even know at which caste(s)/social group(s) to aim its appeal. It has no identifiable firm social base of its own. It is simply unable to relate to subaltern self-assertion. If the Congress targets the MBCs, who are largely unattached to any one party, it could make big gains. But it seriously lacks that perspective or strategy.
The Congress could be very much in the reckoning in UP -- and probably in the next government -- if it wins 30 to 50 seats (of a total of 403), and the BSP mops up 150 or 160. But if the Congress performs just as poorly as in 2002 (25 seats, 10 of which were quickly lost to defections), then the BSP could ally with the BJP -- as it has done before, each time unsuccessfully.
Instability is now endemic to UP. No chief minister there has completed a full term other than Sucheta Kripalani in the mid-1960s. Even the BSP's rise/dominance may not last very long. But to take advantage of instability, the Congress will need a strategy of relating to the major social processes that are reshaping UP's politics. Alas, that's what it lacks.